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June 24, 2006 - 5:42 pm

There was an interesting article today in the emKnoxville News Sentinel/em entitled a href=”http://www.knoxnews.com/kns/national/article/0,1406,KNS_350_4798367,00.html”Personal Bonds/a about a study at Duke University showing how “socially isolated” Americans are today as compared to 1985:br /br /blockquoteAmericans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, according to a comprehensive new evaluation of the decline of social ties in the United States. br /br /A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two…br /br /Compared with 1985, nearly 50 percent more people in 2004 reported that their spouse is the only person they can confide in. But if people face trouble in that relationship, or if a spouse falls sick, that means these people have no one to turn to for help, Smith-Lovin said. br /br /The comprehensive new study paints a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties – once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits – are shrinking or nonexistent. In bad times, far more people appear to suffer alone. br /br /Smith-Lovin said increased professional responsibilities, including working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and long commutes leave many people too exhausted to seek social – as well as family – connections: “Maybe sitting around watching ‘Desperate Housewives’ … is what counts for family interaction.”/blockquotebr /br /I wonder what this “friendless” society means in terms of people’s behavior? For example, do disturbed people commit more mass murder in the US because they are so isolated and when pushed to the limit, feel they have nowhere to turn and no one to talk to? Is this study even correct–do people really stay away from others because they are so exhausted from work and long commutes, or is emDesperate Housewives /emjust more entertaining than exchanging verbal pleasantries with the neighbors? Finally, what is a friend and how do you define one? Frankly, I have people other than family I could count on to help out in certain situations and vice versa but I am not sure I would call them friends.br /br /What do readers think–do you have any friends and if so, who do you consider a friend? If you don’t have any friends, why not?br /br /strongUpdate:/strong Thanks to all the commenters so far who have written in to describe their desire or lack of desire for friends. As with most psychological characteristics, I think the need for friends spans a wide spectrum with some of us being outside the “norm” (whatever that means) in either direction. I will take the liberty of using some of the comments on friendship to clarify the spectrum of responses to closeness to other human beings. br /br /Take for example, this commenter who describes friendship as so important that he puts in the effort even after moving: br /br /”This entire thread is alien to me. I’m 60 years old and I have many friends. I’m still in contact with some of my friends from high school and college, even though I’ve lived in five different states since then and have never moved back “home”. I’ve kept in contact with some people I’ve worked with, worked for and who worked for me. This took effort over the years.”br /br /Another commenter also prefers to “run like a pack”: br /br /I come from an “old world” culture where one’s tight circle of friends – no more than half a dozen plus their significant others – was the be all and end all of one’s world. One’s family, essentially. Talk all the time, hang out all the time, go on trips together, essentially run like a pack; then co-raise one another’s children and grow old together.br /br /Yet at the other end, commenters describe being alone as a positive condition: br /br /”Anon 5:40 says ‘I’m a loner by nature and very happy that way.’ Me too! I have a life-long friend, but I’ve not talked to him in 2-3 years and haven’t seen him in close to 10. I haven’t called him and he hasn’t called me, but eventually when one of us does we’ll pick up like we talked yesterday. Then go back into hibernation mode. I’ve always liked the line in the movie ‘Heat’ where the girl with a large family asks the DeNiro character with no family who lives alone, whether he’s lonely. He replies, ‘I live alone, but I’m not lonely.’ Sums it up nicely, though a fictional bank robber as an example may not make a viable point!”br /br /Some of us want friends but don’t know how to get them: br /br /”I try to think of myself as a ‘lone wolf’ but I am not. I am just the mangy pack member circling the group, trying to figure out where I might fit in, even only for a while.”br /br /’Friendships are a mystery to me. I’m 37, and still not sure how to ‘make friends.’” br /br /I think the lesson here is that friendship means different things to different people. Our threshold for human contact differs–some of us enjoy being alone, some are alone because they have no idea about how to make friends and others revel in numerous friendships and get joy from them. People affect people differently–if you are energized by people and feel pleasure in being with others (a typical extrovert), then friendships can be postive, but if you tend towards introversion, then people can sometimes exhaust you and make you feel blue instead of energized–perhaps more boundaries are needed to maintain your emotional health. br /br /However, even an introvert may need other people–even one person who you can talk with and share some of yourself in ways that feel safe. I don’t want to get into too many cliches such as ‘if you want a friend, be a friend’ but it is probably true. In addition, even if you do not have close friendships in your life, I think it is important to be willing to help others in times of need. I personally may not want to sit on my back porch chatting with a neighbor, but I would be happy to help them if they needed a hand (finding a lost dog, borrowing a tool, watching their house while they are on vacation etc.). If we could keep ourselves open to reaching out to others in times of need, yet still realize that we may need boundaries in our interactions with others, our lives would be greatly improved.

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